Daily Kos says “a tiny handful of very angry men, especially Catholic bishops, have been shrieking that Obama is waging a war on religion and it will be the end of freedom as we know it.”
What Daily Kos is commenting on is the contretemps that has arisen between President Obama and Catholic bishops, with the Republican establishment weighing in to equate women’s use of contraceptives with having an abortion.
The base of this brewing battle is the federal rule that extends all preventive services, including contraception services, to women who are insured through their employers. The rule, which explicitly exempts churches, requires those employers with more than 50 employees who offer health insurance to their employees to cover all preventive care without charge to the insured.
The Institute of Medicine has found that contraceptive services are preventive medicine because contraception prevents so much maternal, infant and fetal illness and death. Around the world, more than a quarter of a million lives are saved each year by the availability of modern contraceptives.
In an op-ed in the February 11, 2012 Albuquerque Journal, Robert Schwartz, professor of law at the University of New Mexico, lays out the absurdity of the position of the U.S. Catholic bishops and their surrogates in one concise sentence: “Even when their employees are paid by taxpayer funding, as many are, and even when the church-run enterprises get a hefty government subsidy through their tax-exempt status, as almost all do, some religious employers insist that they have a First Amendment right to control the morality of the medical and sexual decision-making their employees do after work.”
Professor Schwartz sees the controversy as pitting protection of public health against protection of religious doctrine. He notes that since it upheld the constitutionality of the government-mandated smallpox vaccine, the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that religious beliefs are outweighed by the health of the public when such a balance is undertaken.
There are significant weaknesses in the position of the U.S. Catholic bishops and those who have joined them in trying to make contraception a First Amendment issue of religious freedom. A number of the major Catholic institutions, such as Georgetown University, Catholic University and DePaul University offer contraceptive coverage. According to the ACLU and other sources, some 98 percent of Catholic women have used contraception at some point in their lives. A poll of self-identified Catholics found that 58 percent support contraceptive insurance coverage. It is also the case that the major Catholic institutions employ people of all faiths.
Talk show radio host Bill Press has pointed out that in 2000 the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission set a policy that if insurance covers Viagra for men it must also cover women’s contraceptives. Also, Press notes that much the same policy on contraceptives as under Obama was in effect under George W. Bush, and the Republicans did not raise a ruckus then.
The reaction which has most deeply touched a public nerve is Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s comment that no woman should have a medical decision made by her boss.
As the controversy has swirled, President Obama has announced an “accommodation” whereby religious institutions will not be responsible for providing birth control; however, women employed by organizations such as Catholic hospitals, schools or universities will be able to get contraceptives without charge from their insurance companies. CNN News has called this a back-pedal by Obama and there is speculation about whether prominent female legislators, such as Rep. Rosa Delauro and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who supported Obama before the “accommodation,” will see this as another Obama cave-in. There is also some concern that non-religious employers will see an opening to drop contraception coverage.
Michael Tomasky of the Daily Beast has raised questions about Obama shortcomings in the contraception matter: he didn’t consult sufficiently in advance with the Catholic hierarchy and even Catholic progressives and administration supporters; he may believe that political actors won’t deal with him in bad faith; he may be too aloof and solitary to rely on advice; and he may demand too little of his staff.
What stands out in this contraception controversy is the degree to which U.S. Catholic bishops are obsessed with sex. The Catholic Church was against the war in Iraq; it is against capital punishment and it is for the eradication of poverty; however, the bishops really get up in arms when the subjects of abortion and contraception become prominent in the public discourse. The Catholic Church declared use of contraception to be immoral in 1968.
A central irony of the uproar over contraceptive use is that there was fear that John F. Kennedy might run his presidency in accordance with Catholic doctrine but now it is a non-Catholic President Obama who is leaning over backward to please the Catholic hierarchy.